The institutional "Messiah" of barnacled tradition--haloed religiosity, elephantine solemnity and tonnage, boiled-beef sonorities--seems to have run its long course, swept away by a revolution in baroque performance practice. It's a tradition whose passage should not be lamented, the sonic equivalent of Victor Mature's candid assessment of his contribution to celluloid biblical epics: "makin wit da holy look."
Although it's unrealistic to expect the latest baroque technology from the modern instruments of the National Symphony Orchestra, Friday evening's "Messiah" at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall under conductor Takao Kanayama was nonetheless stunningly successful, and a welcome reminder that modern forces deployed in a large hall can perform baroque masterworks with full credibility and acute musicality.
The Washington Chorus cruised gorgeously with power in reserve; just occasionally, not often enough, one felt the unleashed power that a chorus of this caliber can deliver, but the lack of caution-to-the-wind risk-taking and feral surprises at climaxes seemed hardly to matter. In "For Unto Us a Child Is Born," Handel's choral writing explodes at the words "Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God." The Washington Chorus supplied a quieter drama, but articulation was so crisp and the sound so tightly focused that Handel's joyous conviction rang out affectingly. The infernally difficult vocal configurations (melisma) threading through this chorus had a buoyant lightness and sunlit clarity that made the tune, so awkward in contour, compellingly graceful. "His Yoke is easy" purred along like a luxury car just under the speed limit, and the musical turns in "All we like sheep" tripped effortlessly. The finesse and polish of the singing were redolent of an English landscape--cultivated, yet full of life and always interesting.
The NSO, reduced to chamber proportions, accompanied solidly and well. Inevitably, the large hall gulped up much of the continuo underpinning, but the orchestra's decoration of line was more than minimal and always tastefully done. More significantly, the instrumentalists were listening to the soloists and modified their sound accordingly; some of this credit is of course Kanayama's. In any event, the orchestral fabric was miles distant from the mentholated coolness and bland professionalism of musicians gone stale.
More than anything else it was the soloists who made the evening memorable. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy's ethereally pure voice would beguile even if she used it less intelligently; one's admiration deepened as she colored the text with expressive vibrato kept in reserve for subtle tonal shading. Mezzo-soprano Mary Ann McCormick projected Handel's fioritura with easy security, and her low range has a complex, lustrous quality that was most affecting. Donald George's free-flowing lyric tenor has a ring to it that bespeaks Rossini and his successors, but slight anachronisms of style aside, his vocal flexibility and interpolations of line exalted ev'ry valley. Bass Eric Owens impressed with thundering volume, security of pitch and virile directness.
It's not too late to catch tonight's performance.